Chances of campaign finance bill affecting midterms dim

Democrats’ chances of passing campaign-finance legislation they had hoped would affect this year’s elections are dimming, as key senators have expressed concerns about the measure’s timing.

A spokesman for Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), in the past a GOP champion of stricter campaign-finance rules, said the senator thinks other legislation should be prioritized before the August recess.

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“She’s focused on the small-business jobs bill, and that needs to be our first and primary focus,” said Snowe spokesman John Gentzel. “She’s still reviewing [the campaign-finance bill], but she’s focused primarily on creating jobs and wants to see a small-business jobs bill passed.”

Democrats and watchdog groups supporting the Disclose Act, aimed at blunting a Supreme Court ruling lifting restrictions on corporate and union spending on political advertisements, had hoped to win over Snowe, as well as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.). Without them, Democrats don’t have the 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle to moving the bill to the floor.

But Brown announced Wednesday he would oppose it, saying it gave Democrats an unfair political advantage before a pivotal election and provided too many exemptions for special interest groups like the NRA and Sierra Club. Collins voiced similar concerns.

“While Sen. Collins is still reviewing the Disclose Act, she has expressed concern that this legislation would move away from election laws in this country that treat unions and corporations alike,” said her spokesman, Kevin Kelley, in a statement. “The bill appears to provide a clear and unfair advantage to unions, while either shutting other organizations out of the election process or subjecting them to onerous reporting requirements that would not apply to unions.”

Brown’s avowed opposition and Snowe's and Collins’s concerns are a blow to Democrats and supporters who had hoped the bill would pass both chambers by the July 4 recess so it could be signed into law and affect the November elections.

Watchdog groups on Friday urged Brown to discuss his worries with the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), instead of dismissing the measure outright.

“Our organizations strongly urge you to continue your commitment to ‘accountability and transparency’ in government by working to obtain a Disclose Act that you can support, and by opposing any efforts to kill the disclosure legislation by a filibuster,” wrote the groups, including the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21, People for the American Way, the League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG.

If the bill doesn’t pass now, they said, voters won’t have essential information about who is spending money to influence the 2010 congressional races. The bill would require corporations and unions, as well as nonprofits, to stand by their ads and provide information about who is funding them, just as federal candidates are required to do.

The Disclose Act had a rough ride in the House, eventually passing by a narrow margin, largely along party lines, but not before Democratic leaders were forced to include carve-outs for the NRA, Sierra Club and other groups.

The exemptions offended some members as well as U.S. PIRG, which withdrew its support the week before the House voted.

On Thursday, after Brown’s announcement, however, U.S. PIRG began lobbying for the bill again. The group said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce intends to spend $75 million on political advertising this cycle, up from the $50 million initially planned before the Supreme Court’s decision.

“Unless Congress acts, none of this new money need be disclosed to the voting public,” said U.S. PIRG spokeswoman Lisa Gilbert. “It is a frightening prospect — a danger to our democracy.”